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Public safety faces tough cuts

Citizens of the area’s two largest cities should not expect Cal Walker or Roger Bragdon to pull a fiscal sleight-of-hand this year.

They’re police chiefs, not magicians.

The chiefs will recommend cutting popular public safety programs in Spokane and Spokane Valley if their budgets come up short. Already lean, the departments can’t make deep cuts without impacting the average citizen, said Walker and Bragdon.

Front-line officers who respond to emergency calls are the top priority for both departments. Additionally, the departments can’t stop investigating violent crimes or ignore the methamphetamine epidemic. That means popular programs – neighborhood resource officers in Spokane and school resource police officers in the Valley – could disappear.

Not all law enforcement agencies around the region are worried about the upcoming year. For the most part, the vastly different financial situations mirror those of the government agencies that fund them.

The well-to-do city of Liberty Lake could get two additional officers. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office expects staffing levels to remain fairly constant. The Coeur d’Alene Police Department also doesn’t expect to make any cuts, although it won’t be hiring extra officers to keep up with an increasing number of service calls.

Budgets in Spokane and Spokane Valley are not yet final, but both Walker and Bragdon have been asked by officials in their respective cities to look at how they would handle significant funding cuts in 2005.

Walker has been asked to contemplate cuts as high as $692,000 in Spokane Valley, which he estimates would mean losing nine officers. Walker said under this worst-case scenario, he would recommend eliminating or reducing the three Valley school resource police officers and the six-member traffic unit.

“It’s ugly,” Walker said. “There’s not a whole lot of options when you look at cuts that go that deep.”

The 100-member Valley Police Department is a detachment of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, created to serve the newly incorporated city of Spokane Valley.

Spokane Police Chief Bragdon already lost six school resource police officers in midyear cuts. He’s bracing for more in the upcoming year, although he awaits final budget numbers. The “invisible” cuts in the department were made several years ago when travel was curtailed and equipment purchases were delayed. Civilian positions dealing with dispatching and records have been cut.

“We know it’s going to be serious,” Bragdon said of 2005 cuts. “It’s going to be all personnel, because that’s all we have left to cut.”

In 2005, Bragdon said, he will likely lose five or more officers. He’ll consider cutting the six neighborhood resource police officer positions and if needed will demote detectives back to patrol. The neighborhood resource officers provide an important link to the community, and further scaling back detectives means they will have even less time to deal with property crimes, Bragdon said.

Yet Bragdon needs officers on his front line. The Spokane Police Department has 294 sworn officers, down from 307 in 2003, Bragdon said. Additionally, there are 112 civilian employees. Bragdon has two vacancies he hasn’t filled. Hiring officers is an expensive and lengthy process, and Bragdon said he wants to avoid layoffs.

“In (2005) there’s no optimism at all. There will be cuts, just how serious is the question,” Bragdon said.

Law enforcement budgets tend to be tight around the region and Washington state, said Larry Erickson, a former Spokane County Sheriff who is executive director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. In general, departments have already done what they can to trim budgets, Erickson said. Training has been curtailed. Travel has been reduced. Equipment purchases have been delayed.

“They cut the fat years ago,” Erickson said. “Then they cut the meat. And now they’re starting to amputate limbs.”

Municipalities have struggled as the economy has stagnated in recent years. Washington voters approved an initiative to cap property tax increases to 1 percent each year, making it hard for cities to keep up with growth.

Spokane Valley, which incorporated in 2003, has far less revenue than was expected. Officials in the city of 83,900 will have to decide whether to raise taxes, cut services, or do a combination of both, said Spokane Valley Mayor Mike DeVleming

“Right now, we’re considering everything. There’s nothing off the table,” DeVleming said.

Council members have said providing good public safety is a top priority for the city. Funding reflects that. The law enforcement contract makes up more than half of the city’s $27.3 million general fund.

“You don’t always get to make the popular choice. You have to make the difficult choice, that’s part of the responsibility,” DeVleming said.

When law enforcement agencies are forced to consider eliminating programs or cutting officers, the public needs to understand that some calls for service won’t get dealt with in a timely manner, if at all, said Michael Erp, a researcher with Washington State University in Spokane and director of the Washington State Institute for Community Oriented Policing.

People often have the unreasonable expectation that law enforcement agencies can indefinitely continue to do more with less, Erp said.

People don’t like to hear that when they call police to report a minor theft, there might not be an officer to respond, but that can be the reality, Erp said.

“Is the sky falling? No,” Erp said. “But people will have to live without things they used to get.”

Even agencies that aren’t looking at cuts are feeling the pressure of having more service calls without additional money to hire more police officers.

Chief Wendy Carpenter of the Coeur d’Alene Police Department said she doesn’t expect to be able to add officers next year to her 61-officer force. The department has begun prioritizing calls, something that hadn’t been necessary in the town of 34,500. During busy times, less important calls have to wait in the queue until more urgent ones have been handled, Carpenter said.

At the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, seven officers were hired last year to fill the hole left by Spokane Valley incorporation. The Sheriff’s Office has 137 deputies. Additionally, 261 civilians work for the sheriff’s office and jail.

Sheriff Mark Sterk said he already cut $900,000 from the budget in recent years. With 90 percent of the Sheriff’s Office and Spokane Valley Police Department budgets going to pay salaries and benefits, there would be nowhere left to cut, except personnel, Sterk said.

Yet Sterk feels good about 2005. He doesn’t expect cuts and thinks he’ll get some training money restored. He’s hopeful Spokane County Commissioners will fund the sheriff’s property crimes task force, paid for with grant money that runs out this year.

Sterk said he’s most concerned about Spokane Valley police. He doesn’t want to see law enforcement dip below pre-incorporation levels, a possibility if the deep cuts become a reality, he said.

Liberty Lake, another recently incorporated city, with 4,950 residents, started its own police department in late 2001. The six-member force, which includes Chief Brian Asmus, investigates both major crimes and minor annoyances. Citizens have come to expect a high level of personal service, Asmus said.

The town’s total budget for law enforcement and jail costs in 2004 is $588,991. While Liberty Lake is just beginning its 2005 budget process, Asmus said he might ask for two additional officers to provide even better coverage. Asmus said upping the force would get the city more on par with other Washington cities of its size, which have an average of 2.4 officers per 1,000 inhabitants.

In general, the law enforcement agencies in the Spokane area rank the same as or below their like-sized counterparts on the West Side in numbers of officers per 1,000 citizens. Local law enforcement agencies keep busy, according to the agencies and those who track law enforcement trends.

“We have never ever been properly staffed, but we’ve been able to do a pretty good job,” Bragdon said. “We’re so efficient and so lean that any more cuts are going to seriously hurt.”



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